From Enthusiasm to Stagnation: The Tale of Two Countries Ahead of the OGP19 Summit
I am a person of two countries — I am a citizen of the state of Israel and for the past 5 years I have also been a resident of the United Kingdom. During those five years, I have followed these two OGP member countries work on open government closely, and I can sum the period up as the stagnation of one and the decline of another, which might sound a bit harsh to some. I am one of those lucky ones who don’t need an excessive visa process to enter Canada, so ahead of my fourth Open Government Partnership Summit I’m writing this post not to bring us down, but to help us think about how to move forward and to reignite the ambition we saw back when OGP was first launched in 2011.
So let’s start with my homeland, Israel. Israel became a member of OGP in 2011, under the second Netanyahu government. It had it all — a minister to promote it backed by enthusiastic public officials and an enthusiastic civil society that smelled the change in the air after the summer of 2011 social justice protests. On paper, there was both a will and a way. Then Netanyahu called for elections and got re-elected, but the minister who was responsible for open government lost his seat in the parliament. Civil society actors that were involved on the issues engaged less with the government on this (they had no one to engage with) and today, it’s rare to find any Israeli civil society organisations that know about OGP.
What is the result of this? Israel’s third national action plan (NAP) contained the bare minimum of commitments and it’s co-creation process was almost non-existent. There is no spark in the Israeli OGP plan, no vision or aspiration to do things differently. There is not a single starred commitment in any of its three NAPs. There are some capable junior government officials who are working on a new plan, but without their managers’ support, or government support as a whole, there will not be any progress. Now that Netanyahu has been elected again, it seems this situation will continue — he is currently more concerned about corruption allegations against him and the new parliament has cancelled the transparency committee that was established just four years ago. These are clues on what Israel will be focusing on in the near future.
You may be thinking “Well, it’s Israel, it’s on a journey and we have bigger fish to fry.” But I believe that Israel is not the only OGP country in this state of stagnation; moreover, its a mirror to other OGP countries that are also in decline.
Which brings me back to the UK. When I moved here, it was one of the leading members of OGP, including being the first co-chair six years ago. Compared to Israel, there are a lot more mechanisms in the UK for civil society to engage in the initiative. There is a UK Open Government Network for civil society with active discussions, there are local networks and activity in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and there are meetings and updates with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that is now responsible for the UK’s work on OGP. Yet ever since the Brexit vote and the change of leadership in 10 Downing Street, topics like open government and freedom of information have slipped down the agenda. The implementation of the last UK NAP was ok, but could have been better, and it wasn’t as ambitious as previous NAPs.
The UK’s fourth NAP has been delayed for a while and despite extensions, it has not been released yet, even though Margot James MP, Minister for Digital and Creative Industries, promised that it would be released “soon” over two months ago. Ahead of the summit, the UK civil society network wrote a letter highlighting their concerns about the delay with the minister, urging her to finalise the NAP before the Summit. With just two weeks to go until the Summit, I will be very surprised if this happens. Again, the good will of diligent civil servants has been undermined. They have worked hard to try and get the final text agreed, but they can only get so far without the arms of power giving them the back up they need to see this work through.
The issue in both countries is that there are no OGP mechanisms to deal with challenges as they arise. Letters can only take you so far. You can either wait for the IRM mechanism or file a response policy report. But what is an IRM worth, if a country does poorly three times in a row and gets away with it? Maybe we should just not engage, wait for a regime change and then go back to work? Do we need to keep sending letters ?
As we are going to the summit to celebrate successes and to exchange ideas (and lets face it, sometimes to rant in person), it’s time to think how to tackle this stagnation.
This is going to be the fourth summit I’m taking part in, and I want us to take the time and think about how we can also find solutions to these issues. It can’t be that this is the situation and there is nothing civil society can do about it. If there is nothing to do about it, then why engage at all? I want to hear from others how they think we should address this decline and how we can create mechanisms that will make governments accountable and remain committed to this process. It’s time to be bold and to think differently as civil society. If you have any ideas prior to the summit send me an email, tweet about this on Twitter, find me during the Civil Society day or respond to this blog. I welcome honest discussion about our blind spots in the process of response to badly OGP NAP. This is the way to move away from stagnation, so let’s move forward.